Gary McMahon’s short fiction has appeared in numerous acclaimed magazines and anthologies in the UK and US and has been reprinted in yearly “Best of” collections. He is the multiple-award-nominated author of the novellas Rough Cut and All Your Gods Are Dead, the collections Dirty Prayers and How to Make Monsters and Pieces of Midnight, and the novels Rain Dogs and Hungry Hearts. Below is an extract from his new novel, published Angry Robot, Pretty Little Dead Things. Gary’s website can be found at www.GaryMcMahon.com
I am due to leave hospital in three days. The surgeons have mended whatever was broken and patched me up so that it is difficult to see the joins. But more is broken than my insides, and perhaps something old and previously ignored has even been fixed. I have to think of it this way – in terms of physical properties and parts of me that I cannot name. Otherwise I might go insane.
One of the nurses picked up on what had happened with the dead motorcyclist, and she has been questioning me ever since. After a concerted effort on her part, I finally broke and told her what I saw and what I did with the knowledge. I expected mild concern, even laughter. What I got instead was utter belief. Nurse Haggard believes in what she calls the flipside; her late mother had some kind of latent mediumistic skill and she is herself (so she claims) slightly attuned to the dark. She feels things, senses subtle changes in the atmosphere, but has never actually seen anything that could be described as a ghost.
Before the accident I would have called her a kook. Now I think she might be even closer to the truth than I am.
I have reluctantly agreed to accompany Nurse Haggard to the house of a friend, where I can test my burgeoning ability. This friend of hers – a Mrs Taylor – wants me to contact her dead son.
I lie in bed fully clothed, waiting for my chaperone. I can barely believe what is happening; when did my life turn into such a series of weird events? None of this seems real; it is all so strange and complex.
After midnight she comes to me, this dark nurse of night, and she walks the ward like a spectre. “Are you ready?” she asks, leaning over me and casting her cold gaze across my body.
I nod, terrified to speak in the hospital gloom. I am not ready; of course I am not. Not ready for any of this…
“Are you sure you want to do this? You can back out at any time. No-one will think any less of you.”
“I’m sure,” I say, not sure at all. Not wanting to even think about any of it. The lights above my bed and strung along the ceiling flicker, as if mocking my reply. I stare at them, feeling the strobe effect as it throws my senses into disarray, and they settle at last. In my newfound state, I cannot be sure if it was caused by an electrical fault or some kind of otherworldly presence. Perhaps it is best that I don’t know.
Nurse Haggard helps me out of bed. I am still a little stiff, especially since I have been lying down for such a prolonged period of time. The muscles in my arms and legs tend to seize up, the barely mended bones beneath cowering under layers of knotted flesh.
Layers and layers… layers of flesh and of fantasy. Layers of something I am unable to grasp.
She leads me out of the ward and into the corridor. I have spent the last few days in a communal ward, and most of the other patients are either asleep or do not care that I am out of bed. Someone is mumbling in their sleep. A young man with both legs in plaster a few beds down from mine twitches as he dreams of motion, like a dog chasing rabbits in its sleep.
“This way,” says Nurse Haggard, allowing me to lean on her sturdy shoulders until my muscles loosen. She is a broad woman, heavy around the waist and with large, firm breasts. I am not attracted to her at all, yet I feel an erection stirring in my trousers. Self-disgust prompts me to push Nurse Haggard away, and she shoots me a look of confusion before hurrying ahead to check that the route is clear.
She is too keen, this woman, and too ready to exploit whatever it is I can do. If I can do anything at all, that is, and the first time wasn’t simply a fluke.
We are not accosted as we leave the hospital building and walk to the car park. There are a few loiterers – those waiting for loved ones to be operated upon, nightshift doctors and nurses – who barely even look our way as we pass. We are just two people walking the halls at night: there is nothing unusual in that.
Nothing unusual on the surface, at least.
Nurse Haggard’s little canary-yellow Fiat is parked in a staff space near the main gate. I clamber into the back, flopping into the cramped seat, and realise that I am breathing heavily, as if I have run a mile. It is going to take me a long time to fully recover, despite feeling as if I am well on my way to full health.
Nurse Haggard starts the tiny car and backs it out of the space. The trees along the inside of the wall shudder in the headlights and something – an owl, or some other night bird – takes flight from a low branch, ejecting a white spurt of shit onto the dusty bonnet. Nurse Haggard does not even notice the defilation of her vehicle, but I smile nervously, wondering if it is some kind of omen of which I need to take note. The car judders slightly; the engine is cold after being parked there for most of the day, but Nurse Haggard gives it some accelerator and things even out.
Evening-out. That’s a concept I’ve come to hate. The surgeons and physiotherapists all tell me that things will “even out”, that my mind will begin to heal as soon as my body is better. None of them seem to believe that I have seen something ephemeral – something ghostly. In the end, I stopped telling them and pretended that it had been a simple hallucination caused by a combination of stress and painkillers.
Sometimes lies are the only truth people are prepared to hear. Sometimes lies are better.
Nurse Haggard takes us along streets I do not recognise, up through Chapeltown and the rougher areas where the Yorkshire Ripper once plied his trade. Before long she stops the car outside a long terrace of Victorian houses, each one set back from the road at the end of a stubby little patch of garden. We sit in silence for a while, listening to the sound of the night. A man walks past on the opposite side of the road, his hands thrust deep into his pockets. His thick dark beard makes me think again of the Ripper, of dead and eviscerated prostitutes with hammer blows to their skulls and staring eyes that have seen the long, pale face of their own demise. Lengthy shadows lean from darkened corners, and then duck back into their hiding places.
The man hurries by, a rucksack hanging loose over one shoulder: a night shift worker on his way to clock in.
“Shall we go in?” Nurse Haggard turns around in her seat to stare at me. I can barely make out her features in the darkness; her eyes are sunken hollows in a head that could be not much more than a grinning skull.
I nod. “Yes,” I say, because I know that she will be unable to see me properly in the back of the car, leaning back in the seat that stinks of sex and old cigarette smoke. I don’t really want to go inside, but think that it must surely be better than the atmosphere in the car.
I follow Nurse Haggard out of the car, along the street, and through a low metal gate that squeaks when she pushes it open. It isn’t a scary squeak, like the ones you hear in films, but something high-pitched and almost comical. I watch her wide back as she walks towards the front door of a large double-fronted house with beautiful but grimy bay windows. Grey nets hang in those windows, and I wonder who lives there with Mrs Taylor, the woman who wants me to find her son.
I am tempted to run, but my body aches. In truth, the fear is submerged beneath a wave of curiosity. Can I really do this? Am I capable of communicating with the dead?
Nurse Haggard knocks once on the door and it is opened almost immediately. A sallow girl with lank shoulder-length hair and wide, moist eyes steps backwards into the doorway to let us in. The hallway beyond is dark, the stairs wide and not very welcoming. Why is it so dark? Is it simply for effect or because someone has neglected to pay the bills? By the look of the girl, with her yellowish skin and too-thin arms sticking out of an old-fashioned house dress, I decide that the latter option is probably closest to the truth.
I follow Nurse Haggard inside and the girl closes the door behind us. I never see her again, but I find myself thinking of her often. I don’t even know if Nurse Haggard saw the girl – she certainly did not acknowledge her when the door was opened to allow us inside. Was she a ghost, or a living ghost drifting through the rooms of that house, pining after her dead brother/lover and weeping into the watches of the night?
If this possibility even crosses my mind at the time, then I am unaware of it.
“This way,” says Nurse Haggard, in a whisper. The walls are covered in heavily patterned paper, some of it peeling away up near the ceiling. Wooden dado rails trace a line through the maze, showing us where to go.
We enter a reception room at the end and on the left side of the hall. Inside there is a very fat woman sitting at a low coffee table. She has a glass before her, perhaps filled with water or perhaps with vodka – some clear liquid, at least. The fat woman smiles at me and I feel sure of something for the first time since seeing the ghost of the motorcyclist. “Hello, Mr Usher. I’ve been waiting for you.” Her voice is as squeaky as the gate, and I stifle the urge to either giggle or scream.
“Hello, Mrs Taylor. I’m… sorry for your loss.” I do not mean to be so glib, but I can think of nothing else to say to the fat woman with the glass of clear liquid. I stare at her thin lips, her loose cheeks, and eyes that have never stopped weeping.
She weeps for the world, I think. But that isn’t right. Nobody weeps for anyone but themselves.
“Please sit down next to me, Mr Usher. I think it might be the best place for you, close to the source of grief, as it were.” Again that empty smile: there is nothing behind it, just another row of smiles – a mirror-maze of twisted expressions – each one as vacuous as the first.
Nurse Haggard has gone quiet. Her task is done. She sits in a high-backed chair against the wall and takes a paperback book from her pocket. She recites softly from the book, but I cannot hear what she is saying. It must be a prayer or incantation, or a collection of such. Whatever she is saying, it sounds creepy and I know that it is part of what we are about to try to do.
Again the urge to flee almost overcomes me, but I suck it up, swallow it down. Push it away.
I sit down next to Mrs Taylor. She places a chubby hand on my knee and squeezes. I feel sick, yet still, again, there is that sickly sense of arousal. She licks her lips. I close my eyes. When I open them again she is no longer smiling.
“I don’t know what I’m doing here, but Nurse Haggard seemed to think that I might be able to help. I’m new to this…I’m not sure what it is I’m capable of, or how to control it, but I do know that I saw something a few nights ago and I have no doubt that I will see something again. I just don’t know where or when that will happen.”
Of course I have doubts: about everything.
Mrs Taylor nods her big head. Her greyish hair moves independently from the rest of her, like a small animal attached to her scalp. “I know all about you, Mr Usher. I know what happened. I’ve been to so many so-called mediums and mystics that I feel as if I’ve worn myself out on the afterlife. None of them have been able to contact my David, but a few of them have faked it.”
“I see.” The pain, the loss, the desperation, is written all over her smooth, fat face. I realise now that her smile is not just empty: it is dead. I wish that she would stop saying my name; its overuse is somehow redefining my identity, diminishing it as we speak.
I realise that this woman – this grief-stricken shell – knows more about my situation than I do. She is certain that I will see something, and that certainty bleeds through her skin and seeps into the room, where it latches onto me.
“All I ask is that you give it a try. Just empty your thoughts and try to let my David in. If he’s here, he’ll come to you – I’m sure of it. If not, I can go back to my grief and stop spending all my money on frauds and bastards.” Once again she squeezes my knee; then her hand slips up my thigh, moving towards my crotch. I hold my breath, expecting the worst but her fingers linger at the very top of my thigh and go no further. “If my David doesn’t want to speak to me, I can put everything behind me and try to get a life back. Do you understand, Mr Usher?”
“I think so.” I can only hope that I did not understand her correctly. The thought of this woman naked suddenly fills my head, and it repulses me.
Nurse Haggard gets up and turns out the lights. The only source of illumination is now provided by what little light bleeds through the net curtains from the street beyond. Shadows curl and shudder; the walls bow inward; the ceiling lowers, trapping us there, in the dark. The room is different now, an alien place. I feel as if I am leaving the familiar world behind.
“I’ll do my best for you, Mrs Taylor.”
“That’s all I ask,” she says, lifting her hand from my thigh, but slowly, so that her little finger brushes the crotch of my pants.
I try to rid my mind of all thoughts but those of the woman and her son, who I have never seen. I do not ask for a photograph. I do not need to know what he looks like. My new, rapidly improving instincts tell me that if his spirit is here – or indeed any part of it; a splinter, perhaps – he will make himself known to me. I know then what I hadn’t even guessed at before: I am like a magnet for wraiths and phantoms, and as soon as they become aware of my presence they come to me, drawn by whatever it is I carry inside me like a light that never goes out – only dims, remaining visible in the outer darkness.
Blackness moves behind my eyes, an ocean of nothingness. I reach out to him, to this spirit, but nothing responds. I sense other movement somewhere in the house, on the upper floor, but it is not a young man. It is an old woman – ancient, really. A woman with no teeth and a bald head, who was once dragged out of this house and killed in the street by a mob who despised her for the things she had done to their children.
I feel sick with horror; the shabby spirit enjoys my discomfort.
Hastily I leave the ghost of the old woman behind and mentally grope elsewhere in the darkness, looking for someone else. There is no-one; even the bald old woman has gone now, either unwilling or unable to communicate with me.
“I can’t… not here. Nobody here. I’m sorry.” But I am not sorry, I am relieved.
Then, gradually, I begin to sense a blank spot under the house, a place where there is no kind of energy at all. It is like a huge gaping pit, unseen yet clearly there, beneath the foundations, and it swallows whatever energies are close by. Something stirs within the depths of that pit. Not a ghost, but something else. Like a lumbering patch of nothing; a lacuna. Like a blank giant waking from a deep sleep, this gap, this interstice, reaches out towards me, displacing the earth and the air and hungry for my energy.
I feel afraid.
I feel sick.
I feel… I feel… I feel but I don’t want to feel. Not this. Not anything.
Then, just as I am about to scream, it halts.
I open my eyes and see a thin figure standing before me, head bowed, arms hanging boneless at his sides. He is a black shape sliced from the night: a ragged cut-out who has been shoved forward to please us. That’s exactly how it feels: as if this presence has been sent to appease us – to appease me, or whatever power I carry. It is a peace offering, a desperate gift to ensure that I leave without stirring up any more trouble.
But trouble is the last thing I want.
“That’s not David,” says Mrs Taylor, her pitch rising even more than is normal. When she begins to scream I think that she might never stop.
The dark figure blends back into the darkness of the room, and by the time Nurse Haggard has turned the lights back on there is nobody there, just a stain on the carpet where something has stood and burned the evidence of its being into the fibre.
I am a magnet for ghosts. As they become aware of my presence they come to me, drawn by whatever it is I carry inside me.
I don’t want trouble… I don’t want anything. Not this.
I am a dark magnet: a dark attractor. Pulling forth whatever spirits are near, be they good, bad or merely indifferent to the theatrical posturing of the living.
But magnets are uncontrollable. They attract whatever nature intends. Place a magnet on a table scattered with iron filings and you cannot pick and choose which ones will be attracted. It draws them all towards it, including those damaged or spoiled.
Including the broken ones.
This is the first time I start to consider that what I obviously have, what I possess, may not in fact be a gift, and that it might not necessarily be a tool for good. Like most things in life, its nature is at best ambiguous, and I need to make a decision regarding how to proceed.
I wonder, not for the last time, if I am strong enough to even begin to pursue the limits of my own darkness.
(C) Gary McMahon 2010
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.